Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

The business of going green

Does your business take green IT seriously? Well it should, because ignoring climate change could cost you money and harm your credibility. (originally published in .NET magazine.)

There are now over 1.1 billion computers in operation worldwide, collectively producing about one billion tonnes of CO2 through their electricity requirements. E-waste is serious headache too with computers, mobile phones and electronic gadgets now accounting for 5% of the world’s garbage (UNEP).

But surely small IT companies don’t need to be worrying about that kind of thing? Actually, they do – there are solid reasons why all businesses should be going greener, and not just because of the do-gooder’s warm fuzzy feelings to be had! Over 70% of PCs will not be recycled when disposed of over the next five years, and globally we will dispose of 512 million. We are now legally obliged to dispose of PC equipment properly, and that normally incurs charges. Thankfully there is a free and simple, if underused, alternative; lots of people in the world are in dire need of our “outdated” computers, so donate them to the likes of Computer Aid International. They do thoroughly clean the hard drive(s), but if you are of a paranoid persuasion perhaps scrub them first with something like Darik’s Boot and Nuke.

Perhaps more importantly, consumers and businesses are increasingly taking note of how the products and services they use impact the environment. We became the UK’s first carbon neutral Web host last Summer and that has definitely helped us win more business, which is also probably why so many other dedicated server hosts are following suit.

Carbon offsetting

Things like travel, electricity usage and product manufacture have a “carbon footprint”; the quantity of greenhouse gases directly or indirectly produced as a result of those activities. Most activities are impossible to make 100% green, but you can offset the effective carbon impact by investing in carbon sequestration projects (eg. planting trees) or in greener power generation facilities (eg. wind farms), thus becoming “carbon neutral”.

Organisations like the CarbonNeutral Company and the Carbon Trust can guide you through offsetting, and it is neither expensive nor difficult. For example, an average small office with 10 staff might have equivalent emissions of 20 tonnes CO2/year, which would probably only cost around £200/year to offset.

As well as giving you more credibility in today’s increasingly enviro-friendly world, taking a few hours to review your carbon footprint can lead to some worthwhile cost savings. A simple example is turning off (or hibernating if, like me, you hate rebooting and getting back to where you were each morning) your PC at night. A recent study by Fujitsu estimated that the UK alone wastes £123m on electricity powering PCs left on out-of-hours. See the Energy Saving Trust’s site for more general energy-efficiency tips.

Virtually greener

Carbon offsetting is all good stuff, but when it comes to IT power consumption, prevention is better than cure. Demand for high-availability, centralised server resource is growing relentlessly, and high-density computing uses a lot of energy. Even a base-spec 1U rackmount server will burn 100-200 Watts continuously, and once you fill a few racks and add in cooling requirements you are looking at a whopping electricity bill! With energy prices doubling every few years datacentres’ power consumption is fast becoming a major issue for IT business, and is now the main cost underlying server hosting.

The oddity from our perspective is that the vast bulk of servers in our datacentres idle most of the time, with perhaps 90% never getting close to full capacity. While many applications are best hosted on their own dedicated server (better security, for example), few need the full resource of a modern multi-core, gigahertz machine. That is where virtualisation comes in; the latest generation of virtual machines, using the hardware-assisted virtualisation in new AMD and Intel’s chips (eg. our Miniserver™ technology), are operationally indistinguishable from a physical server but use 5-20% of the electricity. The reduced power and hardware costs give you significant savings while not costing anything you actually needed in the first place, and at the same time you are tackling climate change.

It can be argued that all such measures are a dribble in the ocean, and some have serious doubts about the efficacy of our whole approach to climate change. However, being more climate-friendly is not difficult for most IT businesses and almost certainly helps, so can you really afford to ignore the risks, or miss out on the benefits of going greener?